Miami Beach Convention Center losing business after vote

Large groups are pulling back from booking the Miami Beach Convention Center after voters approved rules that make it harder to proceed with a major renovation of the city-owned facility.

The center’s manager on Wednesday warned city commissioners he needed to “stop the bleeding” on the heels of one convention canceling its large event in 2016 and two others warning they may do the same. This week, the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans canceled plans for a 2016 meeting in Miami Beach, saying in a letter that “anything less than first-class facilities will adversely impact the ability of the Foundation to conduct a successful annual conference ...”

Two other city-wide events, a convention of plastic surgeons in 2019 and the “2016 World Congress” of the National Hemophilia Foundation, also contacted the center this week to warn they may cancel their bookings in light of the renovation delays. The benefits group said it would consider moving its meeting to 2021 if the center would be renovated by then.

While the original plans didn’t call for the renovations to be completed until 2018 — well after the hemophilia and benefit executives events — backers of the project say the setbacks during the election season have soured the meetings industry on Miami Beach.

“It’s the beginning of the hemorrhaging,” said Stuart Blumberg, head of an advisory panel for the center. “Business is at risk because we’ve been saying for 12 years now that we’re going to renovate the center and make it first class.”

On Tuesday, city voters approved a charter amendment establishing a 60 percent threshold for future public votes on the lease required to let a private company renovate the center and operate for-profit ventures on public land surrounding the facility. The current charter requires a 50 percent vote.

The development group known as South Beach ACE and headed by New York-based Tishman Hotels and Realty was hoping to win a majority vote for its $1 billion plan to create a new convention district, but opponents had the item knocked off the ballot in a court challenge. Tishman won a contest to use private dollars for an extensive reworking of the center, including the addition of an 800-room hotel.

The twin developments — scuttling the Tishman item and raising the bar for a future vote to 60 percent — have left the center’s promoters to walk back promises of a renovation in the coming years.

Miami Beach officials say they can still negotiate a new deal with Tishman and then send it to voters next year. But the uncertainty is not sitting well with convention planners, said Bob Balsam, the center’s general manager.

“They’re saying now the hurdle is even higher,” Balsam said. “It’s going to raise a lot of anxiety with these show promoters who say they want to come to Miami Beach, but now, ‘You’re back to square one.’ ”

“We’re really not back to square one,” he added. “We just need to get past that hurdle of a super-majority vote.”

In his e-mail to commissioners, Balsam said news of the election day results would soon make its way into the convention-trade press.

“This will hit our industry publications within the week and heighten other groups’ concerns when looking at Miami Beach as a possible site for their city-wide conventions and/or tradeshows,” he wrote. “I am hoping we can quickly put together a positive piece for circulation in the media to ‘stop the bleeding.’ ”

Miami Beach voters have already approved a hotel-tax hike that could fund a more modest renovation of the center, an approach favored by Philip Levine, the top vote getter in the mayor’s race. The race may be heading for a recount, with Levine appearing just shy of the votes needed to avoid a recount.

Miami-Dade’s tourism bureau, the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, used the renovation plans as a selling point in booking groups in the center, said William Talbert, the bureau’s president.

“It’s clear we have to improve this building,” Talbert said. “The issue is: Are we going to stay in the convention business or not?”

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